Top 5 Marx Brothers Musical Moments
The Marx Brothers were masters of the talkie from their first picture, different from the gradual transition made silent era comedy heavyweights like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. From Groucho’s sarcastic quips to Chico’s fast-talking Italiano persona to Harpo’s inability to speak except through honking or whistling, so much of the Marx Brothers’ unique style of comedy is dependent on the medium of sound. Although we often remember the slapstick and sight gags, most of the Marx Brothers best-loved films were actually musicals and some of their most recognizable reoccurring bits involved Chico tickling the ivories and Harpo playing the harp. Submitted for your perusal, are the top five greatest moments of comedic musicality in the career of the Marx Brothers, starting with…
Top 5 Marx Brothers Musical Moments
1. Everyone Says I Love You from Horse Feathers (1932)
In Horse Feathers, the song “Everyone Says I Love You” (written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby) is performed four times by each of the Marx Brothers in a variety of styles and, somehow, it never gets tiresome. The often forgotten Marx Brother, Zeppo, originally sings it as a love ballad to woo the girl of his fancy. Chico plays it for laughs on piano with the rambunctiousness of an organ-grinder’s pet monkey. Groucho plays it on the guitar as he drifts along the water in a rowboat, changing the lyrics to match his cynical perspective: “Everyone says I love you / But just what they say it for I never knew / It’s just inviting trouble for the poor sucker who says I love you.” Harpo takes a scene to himself to perform the film’s musical theme on the harp and, because of the unexpected emotional nature of his musicianship, it is indescribably heart-breaking every time I hear it. In 1996 Woody Allen directed a musical of re-appropriated songs and he titled it Everybody Says I Love You. Along with the title song, Allen includes another Marx Brothers number in the movie: a French version of ‘Hooray for Captain Spaulding’ from Animal Crackers.
2. Lydia the Tattooed Lady from At The Circus (1939)
At the Circus is not the best outing for Groucho, Chico and Harpo – however it contains what is undoubtedly the most famous, and perhaps the funniest, song to ever originate from a Marx Brothers movie. ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady’ has been performed by Kermit the Frog on the Muppet Show and sung by Robin Williams in The Fisher King, and it so perfectly encapsulates the bawdy spirit of vaudeville that many, including myself, have mistaken it for a much older song. The song is a tour of the world as depicted on the flesh of a tattooed sideshow performer and it rhymes cleverly various historical and contemporary references including Picasso, Buffalo Bill, George Washington, Alcatraz and Niagara Falls. The intricate lyrics (written by E.Y. Harburg) are nothing short of genius in their ability to cheekily imply vulgarity without actually describing a single offensive image. Personally I think Harberg should have been nominated from some kind of international lyricist prize for managing to get through the whole song without using the word ‘cymatia’. Harburg’s lyrics even take a moment to reference Groucho’s character from a previous Marx movie; “Here’s Captain Spaulding exploring the Amazon / Here’s Godiva but with her pajamas on”. The riskiest line in the song was actually removed at the request of the studio, which is a shame because it always elicits the biggest laugh in Groucho’s subsequent performances on television and radio; “When she stands the world gets lit’ler / When she sits, she sits on Hitler.”
3. You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me from Monkey Business (1931)
The Marx’s third movie, Monkey Business, isn’t a musical but it does have a wonderful routine where each of the four brothers spontaneously bursts into song. Playing stowaways on a cruise liner, the brothers realize that they won’t be able to leave the ship without a passport – but luckily Zeppo manages to steal the travel documents of French crooner and film actor Maurice Chevalier (The man who sang ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ and who also does not appear in this motion picture.) When Zeppo attempts to use the celebrity’s passport, the customs agent challenges his claim to be Chevalier. Then Zeppo breaks into a few lines from ‘You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me’ in an attempt to verify his stolen identity, before being chased off by the customs agents. After which Chico arrives in line, also presents Chevalier’s passport, also sings ‘You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me’ and is also chased off. Then Groucho tries the same thing. Then Harpo tries the same thing – and, later in the film, Chico tries it one more time for good measure. I would imagine this routine is exactly the kind of sketch that those who don’t care for the Marx Brothers would be infuriated by, but the brothers’ absurd dedication to a plan that has already failed makes it probably the best executed running gag of their career. The competing Chevalier impersonations was originally a sketch from the Marx’s first Broadway success; a 1924 comedy revue called ‘I’ll Say She Is’ which was never adapted into a film. The brothers liked this particular routine so much that they recreated it for a segment in The House That Shadows Built (1931), an in-house promotional short made by Paramount Pictures to celebrate its 20th Anniversary, and from there it made its way into Monkey Business.
4. I’m Daffy Over You from Animal Crackers (1930)
Before Chico Marx plays piano in Animal Crackers, Groucho introduces the selection as “Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping, with a male chorus” – And depending where you place the punctuation in that sentence, you might run afoul of the Motion Picture Production Code. The piece Chico plays is actually called ‘I’m Daffy Over You’, attributed as a Marx Brothers composition. Within the film, it isn’t exactly a song as much as comedy repartee set to music. The basic premise is that Chico forgets where the changes come into the song and plays the intro over and over, infuriating Groucho and the other guests at the party. After Chico has played the intro three times, Groucho says “Say if you get near a song, play it.” But the real showmanship arrives in the medley following ‘I’m Daffy Over You’ and the scene is one of the best examples of Chico’s trick piano playing, during which his fingers slide along the keys like with the exuberance of a show-off dancer in a new pair of shoes. A talent Chico perfected on stage, but seems tailor-made for the movies since the camera’s close-ups can capture every exaggerated gesture his hands make. Chico’s other notable piano sequences include ‘Gypsy Love Song’ in The Cocoanuts and ‘Collegiate’ in Horse Feathers. In Monkey Business, the Marx’s next film following Animal Crackers, ‘I’m Daffy Over You’ is utilized again – but this time it is Harpo who plays it as a slower solo on the strings of a harp.
5. When My Dreams Come True from The Cocoanuts (1929) and ‘Why Am I So Romantic?’ from Animal Crackers (1930)
The musical score to the Marx’s first film, The Cocoanuts, represents the only collaboration that the brothers had with composing legend Irving Berlin. ‘When My Dreams Come True’ is a charming love ballad when sung by the film’s young lovers (Mary Eaton and Oscar Shaw), but the song is taken to a different level when it is played on the harp by Harpo Marx. Harpo’s moment of quiet melancholy in the middle of a comedy which stresses zaniness is astoundingly effective and thus becomes a tradition in the career of the Marx’s. The impact of Harpo’s hauntingly beautiful harp solos can also be felt when he plays ‘Why Am I So Romantic?’ from Animal Crackers and ‘Everyone Says I Love You’ from Horse Feathers. I imagine that as a child I would not have cared to see a madcap clown like Harpo play a sad song, and would probably have been happier to see him do something destructive like cut the pockets out of someone else’s pants or set another man’s hat on fire (as he does in Duck Soup). But as an adult, I am surprised how touching these quiet moments with Harpo can be. I suppose part of the cinematic strength of Harpo’s solos is due to the fact that his character is always performed as a mute, so when he plays the harp it is as if we are hearing his voice for the first time. In terms of the structure the film, Harpo’s harp solo allows for a brief dreamlike respite from the onslaught of cartoonish wackiness; an entirely necessary component which demonstrates a more sophisticated approach to entertainment than the Marx are usually given credit for. In these moments when Harpo plays us a haunting melody, we see the mask of the clown slip for just a few minutes and recognize that even a preposterous fool is capable of expressing tender feelings and an emotional yearning that will always remain unspoken – except when sung through the strings of a concert harp.
Thanks for making it all the way through the list. If you watched the clips and you still are in need of more Marx Brothers music, you can check out this Advanced Marxism playlist on Grooveshark – created exclusively for Pretty Clever Films.
Original Artwork by Bennett O’Brian